my take on Kraft Heinz Co (KHC)

Late last week, KHC reported 2Q18 earnings.  The figures were disappointing.  More importantly, the company announced it is:

–cutting the $.625/quarter dividend to $.40,

–writing down the value of its intangible assets by $15.4 billion (about 28% of the total) and

–involved in an SEC inquiry into the company’s accounting practices for determining cost of goods sold.  Apparently prompted by this, KHC boosted CoG for full-year 2018 by $25 million in 4Q18.

The stock declined by 27% on this news.


What’s going on?

broadly speaking…

KHC is controlled by famed investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and by 3G, a group of investment bankers behind the consolidation success of beer maker Anheuser-Busch Inbev.

As I see it, Buffett’s principal investing idea continues to be that markets systematically undervalue “intangible assets,” accounted for as expenses, not assets–namely, successful firms’ brand-building through advertising/marketing and superior products/services.  This explains his preference for packaged goods companies and his odd tech choices like IBM and, only after all these many years of success, Apple.  All have well-known brand names cemented into public consciousness by decades of marketing expenditure.

3G believes, I think, that in most WWII-era companies a quarter to a third of employees do no useful work.  Therefore, acquiring them and trimming the outrageous levels of fat will pay large dividends.  Remaining workers, arguably, will figure out that performing well trumps office politics as a way of climbing the corporate ladder, so operations will continue to chug along after the initial cull.

These beliefs account for the partners’ interest in KHC.


My take here is that the investing world has long since incorporated Mr. Buffett’s once groundbreaking thinking into its operating procedures, so that appreciating the power of intangibles no longer gives much of an investing edge.  (Actually, KHC suggests reliance on the fact of intangibles may make one too complacent.)  As to G3, it’s hard for me to figure how companies fare after the dead wood is eliminated.

the quarter

The most startling, and worrying, thing to me about the quarter is the writedown of intangibles.  My (admittedly quick) look at the KHC balance sheet shows that total liabilities and tangible assets–working capital and plant/equipment–pretty much net each other out.  This means that shareholders equity (book value) pretty much consists solely in the intangibles that drive customers to buy KHC’s ketchup and processed cheese foods.  That number is now 28% lower than the last time the company looked at these factors.  Did all that decline happen in 2018?  Is this the last writedown, or are more in the offing?

The fall in the stock price seems to me to correspond closely to the writedown.  I’d expect the same to hold the in the future.  And it’s why I think the risk of further writedowns is a shareholder’s biggest worry.


–A dividend reduction is always a red flag, especially so in a case like this where the payout has been rising.  It suggests strongly that something has come out of the blue for the board of directors.  However, KHC appears to be indicating that cash cows are being divested and that loss of associated cash flow is behind the dividend cut.  I don’t know the company well enough to decide how cogent this explanation is, but it’s enough to put the dividend cut into second place on my list.

–an SEC inquiry is never a good sign.  In this case, though, it seems that only small amounts of money are at issue.  But, if nothing else, it points to weaknesses in management controls, supposedly 3G’s forte.


Final thoughts:

–Experience tells me the whole story isn’t out yet.  I’d want to know whether KHC is taking these actions on its own, or are the company’s lenders, its auditors or the SEC playing an important role?

–This case argues that the intangible economic “moats” that value investors often talk about have less protective value in the Internet/Millennial era than in earlier, slower-changing times.





thinking about retail: Dicks Sporting Goods (DKS)

DKS reported disappointing earnings Monday night.  Its stock dropped by 23% in Tuesday trading.  So far this year it has lost 49% of its value, in a market that’s up by 10%.  …this in spite of the bankruptcies of rivals Sports Authority and Gander Mountain, which should arguably have cleared the way for better results.

The obvious culprit here is Amazon (AMZN).

I’m sure that AMZN is a factor.  On the other hand, although AMZN is growing at 4x the +5% rate of annual expansion of sporting goods sales in the US, the online giant represents only about 4% of the total sporting goods market.  DKS alone is 50% bigger–and its bricks-and-mortar competition has shrunk considerably.  So online can’t be the whole story.

I think two other general factors are involved:

–Millennials vs. Boomers, with DKS, to my mind, clearly oriented toward Baby Boomers’ tastes.  This issue here is that although Boomers have more money than Millennials, their star is waning as Millennials’ is rising.

–a “normal” business cycle.  During most time periods and in most parts of the world, in my experience, consumers are constrained in their buying by the limits of their income.  As new households form and families rent/buy a residence, rent/mortgage and, sooner or later, things like furniture become significant purchase categories.  This means less money for other purchases–like new golf clubs.

From the late 1990s through 2007, however, that wasn’t the case. Universal availability of home equity loans enabled consumers to avoid budgeting and prioritizing purchases.  So the typical pattern of contraction in some retail categories while housing-related, expands was absent for an extended period.

Now it’s back.  My sense is Wall Street has yet to catch on.

As an investor, I’m not particularly interested in the sporting goods category.  But I think the pattern I see here isn’t an isolated phenomenon.  If I’m correct, we should be doubly careful of any traditional retailer.



more on demographics: Millennials vs. Boomers

Market intelligence company NPD recently published a paper titled “Winning Millennials, Gen X and Boomers with the Five Ws.”  It analyzes shopping habits of Americans in different age categories based on item-by-item data from individual consumers collected by the NPD Checkout Tracking service.

Its conclusions:

brick and mortar shopping

–as one might guess, the younger the consumer, the greater the preference for online.  The older the consumer, the greater the preference for bricks and mortar.

Baby Boomers are now seniors, meaning they are adjusting down their spending in line with reduced pension–as opposed to salary–income.  Boomers want stability, stores they’re accustomed to, availability of necessities, value for money and one-stop shopping. …in other words, warehouse clubs, where they spend on all sorts of items.  Pretty boring.

Boomers do frequent convenience stores, but mostly for gasoline.  Food accounts for less than a fifth of what they spend there.

–Millennials like convenience stores.  They spend more than other age groups on gift cards there (why, I don’t know).  But they, and Gen X also buy a lot of food in C-stores.

Millennials and Gen Xers ( go to warehouse clubs, but strictly for groceries.


Amazon is the king of online for all generations, making up 20% – 25% of individuals’ total online spending.

Millennials spend the largest part of their budgets online, Boomers the least.

Millennials use mobile apps of all sorts–like Uber, Seamless, GrubHub, Airbnb,and Etsy.   (Interestingly, NPD also mentions Target among Millennial favorites.)  Boomers, in contrast, stick with department store websites, QVC and travel services.

The younger the consumer, the more likely the purchase will be something that’s available primarily online or easiest to get online–meaning books, music, software or tickets.

my thoughts

Data from Washington show that Millennials are the largest segment of the US population.  They also show that Millennials’ income is at present about half the size of Boomers–but that Millennials pay is rising as they gain more work experience, while Boomers’ income is being more or less cut in half as they retire.  To my mind, this secular trend argues for investing where Millennials shop.

I hadn’t known how important convenience stores are to Millennials.

I’m more surprised, though, by the characterization of Boomers as a group already deep into a low-income retired lifestyle.  I’d have guessed that was still years off.  More reason to look for where Millennials shop.



Millennials as socially aware investors

I’ve been at least peripherally conscious of the Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) segment of the investment management business for a very long time.  The criteria for a company or security being “socially responsible” have primarily been negative–typically no “sin” stocks, namely, tobacco, alcohol, gambling or weapons.  Maybe no heavily polluting industries, as well.

It’s also been a niche business, with high costs and poor performance results.  I don’t get the results part.  I don’t understand why any portfolio manager would hold tobacco stocks, thereby lowering the cost of capital for a terrible business and enabling in the harm it causes.  Polluters, who will inevitably be caught, fined and disgraced, are a poor bet, too.  In my experience few PMs in the US hold these sorts of stocks (how the ones who do justify this remains a mystery to me), although lots in Europe do.  I have less trouble with the other three industry groups, but all are relatively small parts of the index.  Holding Faceboook, Google or Netflix would more than offset any loss of performance avoiding the sin stocks would cause.  So I’ve never understood why SRI investing results haven’t been better.  Could  SRI investors want underpeformance to validate their virtue?

According to the Institutional Investor, however, the SRI backwater is undergoing a transformation.  That’s because Millennials are showing themselves to be genuinely socially aware investors.  Yes, there are industries where they don’t want to put their money.  But they also appear to be much more knowledgeable about publicly traded companies than older investors (the Internet?  PSI?).   And they have a much greater desire to own companies that aim to solve social or environmental problems, rather than simply avoiding doing harm.

As I mentioned above, most thinking PMs are socially aware in their stock selection anyway.  It’s the right thing to do  …and it makes good business sense.  Just don’t tell a potential client, or he’ll conjure up the image of a performance-indifferent hippie, despite your conservative suit and tie.

My guess is the the first evidence of SRI-aware Millennials will not be in a flowering of SRI funds and ETFs.  Rather, we’ll see it in incrementally better performance of companies with highly ethical managements and in industries that target social good.  If SRI funds could post competitive investment performance, they may participate, too.


Millennials and job-hopping

Knowing my interest in the behavior of Millennials, my friend (and regular reader of PSI) Bob sent me a link to a 538 Economics article on Millennials and job-hopping.  The post is short and worth reading, as is most everything on 538.

538 says that if we follow press accounts, Millennials are inveterate job-changers.  We can see this, the argument goes, if we compare how long they hold down a given position vs. the behavior of the cohort a decade or so older than them.  The numbers are clear.  Millennials change jobs more frequently than their older brothers and sisters.

So far, so bad.  This is the wrong comparison.  The real question should be, 538 says, how the behavior of Gen Xers compares with that of Millennials when Xers were the same age as Millennials are now.  Government data show that when they were 20-somethings, Gen Xers were more rapid job-changers than Millennials are now.

As 538 puts it, “The myth of the job-hopping millennial is just that — a myth.”

Why is this interesting, other than the gotcha moment for the press?

The virtue of the “bad Millennial” story is that it’s attention-grabbing, initially plausible, doesn’t require much thinking and is easy to write.  The not so good part is that it’s wrong.

We can probably figure this out, especially if we have friends like Bob.  I wonder how the newsfeed reading and parsing computers run by algorithmic traders deal with stuff like this.  Not well, I would think.

I think this kind of situation should present continuing opportunities to take a contrary position.  As always, one trick will be to try to figure out when momentum has shifted far enough in the wrong direction to make this profitable.  Another, harder one, will be to figure out when the pendulum has gone far enough and will soon begin to reverse itself.